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Don't feed North Korea's dependency

October 29, 2005|Stephen Winn Linton | STEPHEN WINN LINTON is the chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, which has been providing medical assistance in North Korea, primarily to tuberculosis patients, since 1995.

LONG KNOWN for surprises, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- better known as North Korea -- again shocked the international humanitarian aid community when it announced recently that it wouldn't accept any more emergency food aid.

This edict was accompanied by a request that the U.N. World Food Program, which has been shipping hundreds of thousands of tons of food to North Korea, shift to "development aid" and withdraw the food monitors charged with making sure food goes to those who really need it.

Actually, no one should have been surprised. After all, this is the 10th year since the international community responded to Pyongyang's call for help with one of the largest emergency aid programs in history. From the beginning, North Koreans made it clear that international aid was welcome, but only until they were able to do without it. Numbers have a particular significance in Korean culture, and anything that lasts over 10 years has the odor of permanency.

Apparently, North Korea has decided that it's time for a change. And I agree.

First, contrary to the claim that more than 6 million North Koreans might starve if international aid dries up, there is no food emergency in North Korea today. For two years after the 1995 floods that triggered the famine, countless displaced persons wandered the countryside in a desperate search for something to eat. Some went to China, precipitating the international community's belated interest in North Korean refugees. Most border traffic today is about trade, not hunger.

Since 1998, things have been slowly improving. Life is still very tough in North Korea and is likely to remain so for some time. Still, this fall, North Koreans are again flooding into the countryside, not to search for food but to gather one of the best harvests in years.

Second, far more help is available today should North Korea ever need emergency aid again. When Pyongyang dialed 911 in 1995, the phone rang in Geneva and New York, and it took months for the first large shipments of international aid to arrive, too late to help many people. One official told me at the time: "We are very grateful for international assistance. Still, one ton two months ago would have been more welcome than 10 tons today."

In 1995, the delay was the result of having to ship food halfway around the world. At the time, South Korean President Kim Young Sam not only refused to send food to feed his fellow Koreans, he did his best to dissuade foreigners from helping, hoping that starvation would spark regime change in the North. Today, relations are vastly improved. South Korean governmental and charitable organizations are supplying the bulk of aid to North Korea. If Pyongyang ever needs emergency food again, it can dial 119 (South Korea's emergency number) and the phone will ring in Seoul. South Koreans could get food to hungry North Koreans so fast they would make FEMA blush with envy.

Third, continued dependence on the international community for food security would retard serious economic reform. Emergency aid can save lives in times of crises, but it is a poor foundation for long-term development, something North Koreans have known all along. As another official told me in 1997: "We have seen what happens when nations become permanent wards of the international community for their food security, and we want none of it. We believe in juche [self-reliance.]" It's unwise and impolitic for the U.N. or others to beg Pyongyang to accept food. North Korea is highly suspicious of the motives of outsiders who offer humanitarian "carrots" in hopes of coaxing it to open up -- let alone make concessions on its nuclear programs or human rights.

It remains to be seen whether Pyongyang will continue to strive for self-sufficiency in agriculture (difficult under the best of circumstances because of a cold climate and hilly terrain) or opt for an export economy like in South Korea, which imports 60% of its food. Either way, North Korea's only real chance to get ahead is to wean itself from international welfare and find an economic niche in the most competitive neighborhood on the planet.

Finally, continued international emergency assistance is bad for Korean reunification. As the last half-century of history proves, Koreans are far more dangerous divided than united. And it has become increasingly obvious to the international community that such problems as nuclear nonproliferation, human rights and economic development in North Korea can only be addressed with South Korea's help.

The breathtaking pace of North-South rapprochement is making many people in Washington nervous, and some fear that too much chumminess on the Korean Peninsula will interfere with more important concerns, such as making North Korea give up its nuclear programs. Exactly the opposite is true. Korea would be much less of a headache for everyone if North and South were more dependent on each other -- even if it meant being less dependent on everybody else.

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